Dir:Paul Haggis. US. 2004. 100mins.

Whilethe mini-genre it occupies - multi-storylined ensemble pieces aboutdysfunctional life in southern California - is already well-established (see ShortCuts, Magnolia), Crash is a superb, sometimes literallybreath-taking new addition to this august group.

First-timefeature director Paul Haggis (a native of Canada who has lived in Los Angelesfor a quarter-century) perhaps strains a bit too much for significance in thefinal act. But the film's nuanced, often surprising multi-layered script andthe always riveting (occasionally astonishing) acting of its established castshould make it a standout performer in art-film markets around the world. AtToronto, Lions Gate Films paid close to $4m for North American rights.

Haggis'stheme is the racial, ethnic, and class tensions that often render thecontemporary urban landscape nightmarish, perhaps especially in LA.

Buthe's not out to preach, and one of the most effective aspects of the movie isthe way it initially sets up characters as stereotypes (which is, of course,the way most of us see others), then reveals them to be complicated,contradictory human beings (which is, of course, what all of us are). Victimsbecome villains and vice-versa.

Itdoesn't hurt that the depressing human behaviour we witness throughout isultimately redeemed by the filmmakers' cautiously optimistic vision.

SandraBullock, the pampered wife of the district attorney (Fraser), has her life isthrown into tumult when their luxury car is carjacked by two black thugs, whothemselves complain about being stereotyped by white people.

MattDillon plays a racist cop who, after pulling over a well-to-do black couple,fondles the woman (Newton), while humiliating her husband who already hasenough problems with the 'soft' racism at the Hollywood studio heworks for.

Adetective (Cheadle) must deal with a mother who favours his gangster brotherand a legal system that even when it decides to favour blacks manages to do itin a racist way.

Arookie cop (Phillippe) defies the racial hatred of his fellow LAPD brethren,only to fall victim to it himself. And s semi-crazed Iranian immigrantshopkeeper threatens a Hispanic locksmith who thinks only of protecting hisbeloved little girl.

Thefrequency with which paths cross in this immense city occasionally strainscredulity, but films like Amores Perros have taught us to acceptthis lack of surface realism in the service of a higher aesthetic end.

Interestingly,the film's most powerful moments are so realistic that they're almostexcruciating. A good half dozen sequences are so intensely acted and so deeplyinvolving that audiences will forget they're watching a movie until the sceneends and exhaling can recommence. Yet Haggis also knows how to increase the overalleffect by interlacing quieter, more tender scenes as well.

Onespecific scene, involving Newton and Dillon at the scene of an accident, issimply unforgettable. Music also works some major magic here, with Mark Isham'swonderfully eerie score often playing in disturbing counterpoint against whatwe're seeing on the screen.

Prodcos: BobYari Prods, Bull's Eye Entertainment, DEJProductions, ApolloProscreen, Harris Company, BlackFriar's Bridge
Int'lsales: SyndicateFilms
US dist:
CathySchulamn, Don Cheadle, Bob Yari, Mark R Harris, Bobby Moresco, Paul Haggis
PaulHaggis, Bobby Moresco
JamesMuro, Dana Gonzales
Prod des:
Main cast:
MattDillon, Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, BrendanFraser